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Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: History

Origins: Athenian Democracy and Republican Rome

The holding of elections dates back to the times of the Greek city-states and republican Rome. Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC is often considered the first direct democracy. During this period, Athenian citizens had the right to participate in debates and vote on public matters in the Assembly, the state's sovereign body. Although matters addressed in the Assembly still needed final approval from the Council, a body composed of the most elite citizens, the Assembly still had the power to amend the Council's propositions. The Athenian leader Cleisthenes is attributed with expanding the size of the Council from 400 members to a more representative 500 members.

Elections in republican Rome, from the fifth to the first centuries BC, were also carried out in assemblies, but segregated by class and tribe. Patricians (the wealthy and large estate owners) elected senators, while the lower class, known as plebeians (small landowners and artisans), elected tribunes. The size of the Senate varied over time, but its power to set policy, levy taxes, declare war, and appoint the city's magistrates remained fairly constant. There were between two and three tribunes who acted as interceders on behalf of the plebeian class (they also used their positions to advance their military careers). While ancient Rome was thus more populist than ancient Athens in some respects, the Senate retained a supreme position. Both ancient Athens and Rome, it must be pointed out, excluded most people from the franchise, including foreign-born residents, women, and slaves. Furthermore, both economies relied heavily on slaves, a fact that plantation owners in the American South pointed to as showing democracy's compatibility with slavery. Still, in contrast with the tyrannies of their time, both polities offered a significantly more democratic model.

England: The First Parliament

The 1215 signing of the Magna Carta (Great Charter) in England established the basis for the world's oldest and most enduring elected representative parliament (eventually consisting of the House of Lords and the House of Commons). The Magna Carta outlined the limits of the monarch's power, indicating that the king or queen was also subject to the rule of law. In the late 13th century, an assembly convened that included representatives of both the upper and lower classes. During the reign of King Edward III, who ruled during the 14th century, the assembly was divided into an upper House of Lords (those with hereditary rank and the high clergy) and a lower House of Commons, representing the counties and boroughs. Notably, the boroughs set their own rules for electing representatives to the Commons. Some adopted general suffrage for adult males. For county representation, in 1430, parliament established a voting requirement of taxable property generating a minimum income of 40 shillings, or 2 pounds.

Since the parliament never consented to change the standard, by the mid-1600s this class of voters grew by inflation to include most adult male property owners. By 1628, the House of Commons represented a sizable enough constituency to raise an army against a recalcitrant king who sought to go to war without consent (see also "Consent of the Governed"). Further expansions of the franchise did not take place until the mid–19th century. General male suffrage was established only in 1918 (for nearly all purposes), and limited women's suffrage (for single women over the age of 30) was established in 1918 with the Representation of the People Act, which was passed in recognition of the sacrifices of both men and women in World War I. Universal suffrage for women and men was achieved only in 1928.

The U.S. Model

As one of the modern world's earliest representative democracies, the United States has a long history of holding general elections for both the executive and legislative branches of government. In the country's earliest years, however, the franchise was surprisingly limited. The U.S. Constitution itself did not establish a national standard for voting. The states, by tradition, generally adopted similar property requirements as the British in the belief that only those with a rightful (meaning propertied) interest in the state possessed sufficient education and reason to decide upon its affairs. Only in the mid–19th century did states gradually adopt general suffrage for adult white men. It took until 1920, after a century of agitation, for the passage of the 19th Amendment establishing women's suffrage. The first territory, however, to establish women's suffrage was Wyoming in 1869.

The Most Enduring Struggle for Suffrage—and Freedom

In the United States, one of the most enduring struggles for suffrage and freedom has been that of African Americans. The U.S. Constitution's infamous 1787 "three-fifths compromise" left slavery in place and strengthened the South's representation in Congress. While slavery was abolished in the northern states, free black citizens were still routinely denied the right to vote, even after the adoption of general suffrage, except in a few states like Massachusetts that ensured voting rights for freedmen. After the Union's victory in the Civil War and the freeing of slaves, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 guaranteed male suffrage regardless of race. Yet by the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, blacks faced a new form of white oppression in the form of Jim Crow laws. These were collections of state and local laws that mandated "separate but equal" standards, allowing segregation and discrimination to continue.

1963 March on Washington

For over 90 years, African Americans struggled against discriminatory practices in the South and the North. Nonviolent actions and initial victories against segregation gave rise to the modern civil rights movement. The 250,000-strong 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom propelled passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public places, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned literacy tests for voting. These legal changes have led to some tangible improvements in political participation and representation for black Americans. The percentages of blacks who are registered and have voted in national elections have increased over time, although rates are still higher for white Americans. In addition, blacks have increased representation in most state legislatures and in the House of Representatives. The Senate, however, has just one black member.

Universal and Equal Suffrage

As American history indicates, the establishment of a fully democratic political system does not happen immediately. Often, democracy emerges from a long and difficult struggle to expand democracy's freedoms to all citizens of a country. During the period in the 18th century known as the Enlightenment, philosophers considered the system of democracy, seen as mob rule, to be inferior to all others. Indeed, the founders of the United States, such as James Madison, were by and large republicans who believed in constitutionalism (a state "ruled by laws and not men"). They believed that some property ownership should be necessary to exercise the franchise. By contrast, the more radical French Revolution in 1789 established the principle that citizen participation in politics is a civil right and was included in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Although the Revolution's downfall led to the Napoleonic Empire, the republic's initial spirit of equal citizenship became the basis for future French republics and has been a source of democratic inspiration around the world.

As American history indicates, the establishment of a fully democratic political system does not happen immediately.

Although restrictions on suffrage have been common, today, full and equal suffrage is a universal principle outlined in UN conventions. It is also inevitable. Industrialization during the 19th century in Europe and the United States contributed to the rise of strong working-class movements and to a greater involvement of women in the workforce.

Yemeni women voting in 2006
As democratic systems arose in the British Commonwealth, Europe, and Latin America, popular social movements, inspired both by liberal and radical philosophies, successfully demanded suffrage based on citizenship and not property ownership. In response, many governments around the world extended voting rights to previously disenfranchised groups.

Women's suffrage lagged general male suffrage, but generally not by long. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to grant universal suffrage, and in 1906, Finland became the first European country to do so. Azerbaijan became the first democracy in the Muslim world with the adoption of universal suffrage in 1918, which lasted until the invasion of the Bolshevik Red Army in 1920 (see Country Study of Azerbaijan below). The United States and the United Kingdom adopted women's suffrage relatively late, in 1920 and 1928, respectively. Surprisingly, the French government granted women's suffrage only after the country's liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944. In many other countries, such as in Latin America, universal suffrage took much longer. In Venezuela, property, literacy, and other restrictions on voting were not lifted until the 1952 revolution.

A Universal Norm

Today, free and fair elections and universal and equal suffrage are considered international norms for all of the 123 electoral democracies listed in Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2007 survey. Several international institutions monitor elections around the world, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, and the United Nations, as well as election monitoring organizations from the United States and the European Union (EU). Within countries, domestic observers are another check on abuse by national and local officials. International observers are likely to be found in countries seeking to transition to democracy or looking for international legitimation of political changes. However, dictators may allow observer teams into the country in the belief that the government controls the process so well that observers can be fooled into giving nondemocratic elections a seal of approval (see Country Study of Azerbaijan).